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Progress or Promises? Free Trade and Labor Rights in Colombia

A free trade agreement with Colombia is moving forward, sparking accusations that the US is rewarding the country for 'promises, not actions.'
 
 
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Rodolfo Vecino has a death sentence on his head. He has been told he will be kidnapped, tortured and his family will be murdered. Already this year one of Vecino’s colleagues has been killed – in January, Mauricio Arrendondo and his wife Janeth were gunned down in front of their children.

Vecino is the president of Colombian oil workers union (USO), which was last year declared a “military target” by right-wing paramilitaries for its campaigns against what the union says are the abusive labor practices of Canadian oil giant Pacific Rubiales.  The union’s campaign began last summer; just two months after Colombia signed a Labor Action Plan (LAP) with the U.S. pledging to tackle the very practices used by Rubiales and the type of anti-union violence that USO has suffered. The signing of the pact unblocked negotiations over the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the countries, which had stalled over Colombia’s abysmal labor rights record.

A year on, and at last weekend’s Summit of the Americas, the U.S. declared it was satisfied that Colombia had complied with the LAP and was enacting the reforms called for. The decision opens the way for full implementation of the FTA in May, even as unions and human rights groups in both countries continue to accuse the U.S. of “rewarding promises not actions”. Meanwhile, USO’s campaign against Rubiales continues and it is far from an isolated case. Unions across Colombia maintain they face the same problems of violence, worker abuse and anti-union practices, all committed with seeming impunity.

Disposable labor

Protests against Rubiales began after workers at the company’s Puerto Gaitan site contacted USO and described how 12,000 sub-contracted workers - the overwhelming majority of the workforce - were enduring low pay, appalling conditions and instability while being denied the right to bargain collectively and associate freely. 

Ending the abusive sub-contracting system commonly used in Colombia was one of the principal aims of the LAP. The practice began in the late 70s, when businesses began to take advantage of the fact that many of Colombia’s labor regulations did not apply to worker cooperatives. Companies fired their entire workforce then forced workers to sign on with contractors calling themselves cooperatives. As the workers were then classified as temporary employees and could be laid off without cause, the cooperatives forced them to accept whatever pay and conditions were on the table. It was also a useful tool for preventing unionization as any worker who began organizing or agitating could be immediately fired. “They lost their rights, they lost money [and] they lost their working stability,” said Andres Sanchez from Colombia’s National Union School (ENS). The practice continues today, utilizing Colombia’s army of the unemployed and underemployed as ready replacements for sacked workers. 

The LAP called for Colombia to enforce pre-existing but widely ignored legislation banning the cooperatives. However, as the Rubiales workers testified, in many sectors little has changed. Because the cooperatives are now banned, most of the contractors have simply changed names and become Simplified Stock Companies or Temporary Service Companies. “The phenomenon continues the same,” said Sanchez. “It is the same dynamic, they do the same things, workers [still] can’t demand that they benefit from their labor and not the third party,” he added. According to Sanchez, over 2 million workers in Colombia are still employed through these sub-contractors.

In Puerto Gaitan, the sub-contracted Rubiales’ workers have been forced to accept what Rodolfo Vecino called, “truly humiliating and poverty stricken” conditions. “They don’t have the conditions of a dignified life, they don’t have dignified salaries, they don’t have contracts that genuinely give the workers respectable levels of stability,” he said.

 
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